Posted by: Dan | July 19, 2007

Longing for a Pure Event: Or, If you are the Son of God…

[W]hat does it mean “to believe?” That would mean maintaining some kind of subjectivity as a criterion of the validity of things… What interests me instead (but can you still call this history?) is the possibility of a pure event, an event that can no longer be manipulated, interpreted, or deciphered by any historical subjectivity.
~ Jean Baudrillard, Forget Foucault, 73.

[T]he chief priests, the teachers of the law and the elders mocked [Jesus]. “He saved others,” they said, “but he can't save himself! He's the King of Israel! Let him come down now from the cross, and we will believe in him. He trusts in God. Let God rescue him now if he wants him, for he said, 'I am the Son of God.'”
~ Mt 27.41-44.

It seems to me that a good many of the influential thinkers of the last one hundred years, when confronted with their own subjectivity, were incapable of moving beyond that subjectivity into the realm of “the real.” Granted, some felt that they could grasp the real as far as the real consisted of the elements of the natural sciences, but the reality of “truth” or “meaning” or “value” seems to be beyond their grasp. Although I am no philosopher, it seems to me that this “crisis of subjectivity” (if I can call it that) profoundly impacts the writings of many who have influenced, and continue to influence, “postmodern” thought — Wittgenstein (speaking of values is non-sensical), Lacan (Reality is always mediated by the Symbolic and the “Big Other”), Derrida (that which causes us to see is that which also blinds us), Foucault (power determines what is real), and Baudrillard (disenchantment and nihilism have led us into a world where “the name of the game remains a secret”) are all, in their own ways, caught in this crisis.

Those of us who are accustomed to assuming a less complicated and more direct access to “the real,” whether because of our removal from philosophical discussions or because of our ongoing attachment to the naivete of “enlightened” claims to objectivity, may be inclined to think that such writers are prime examples of the collapse or decline of Western thought.

However, we would be foolish to dismiss such thinkers so easily. Intelligent critiques must be confronted honestly. Furthermore, all these thinkers desire access to the real. They pursue the real, they pursue value and truth and objectivity, but, due to “the crisis of subjectivity,” they find that these things are continually beyond their grasp. Indeed, this crisis is so deep that many of them are convinced that any who now claim to have contact with the real, to have access to truth, value and objectivity, are to be treated with suspicion. All such claims are generally challenged and rather thoroughly refuted. Thus, in their longing for what Baudrillard calls “a pure event” they assail anything that claims such status and continually find that such claims are consistently “manipulated, interpreted, or deciphered” by historical subjectivities.

This pursuit of the real by attacking all those who claim direct contact with the real reminds me of the way in which the Jewish religious leaders of Jesus' day mocked him while he was being crucified. These leaders are not simply mocking Jesus because of their cold-heartedness. Rather, their “mockery” is also an appeal to Jesus (I forget who first introduced this idea to me, perhaps it was N. Elliott). In this regard, this “mockery” is the religious leaders' final appeal for “a sign” that will confirm his Messianic status (cf. Mt 12.38-45). Because, in actuality, they probably do want Jesus to save himself, they probably do want Jesus to come down from his cross, because they too are probably longing for a Messiah who can overcome the crucifying power of Rome. By crying, “He trusts in God! Let God now save him!” they are also saying, “We trust in God! Let God now save us!” And so, even as they crucify Jesus, they are disappointed that another so-called “Messiah” has come and gone and they are still not free.

It is interesting to juxtapose the position of these religious leaders with the position taken by the contemporary thinkers mentioned above. The religious thinkers long for “a sign” in the same way in which Baudrillard longs for a “pure event.” Further, just as the leaders' longing for that sign leads them to crucify Jesus, so also our thinkers' longing for the pure event leads them to attack all claims of truth, value, objectivity, and contact with the real. Both refuse to accept anything less than that which has been denied to us and so both become transformed into death-dealing forms of life-seeking.

So how are we Christians, as those who insist on some contact with reality, some sort of objectivity, and some understanding of truth and value, to respond to these things?

First of all, we cannot respond by arguing that any sort of irrefutable sign, or pure event, has occurred. If the advent and the resurrection of the Son of God was open to manipulation and interpretation even during Jesus' lifetime then we cannot claim revelation as the sort of universally binding pure event for which so many are longing. Of course, I would be inclined to believe that God's direct and unmediated revelations of Godself to small groups or individual persons — like Jesus' appearance to Thomas and the twelve after the resurrection, or his appearance to Paul on the road to Damascus — function as a “pure event” to those involved, but there is no way that that encounter can be offered, or reproduced, as a “pure event” to those who were not a part of that encounter as it occurred. Consequently, from a Christian perspective, only the parousia of Jesus and the final coming of God can function as the hoped for pure event of which we have been speaking here. Thus, such a universally applicable pure event really does not belong to the realm of “history” (Baudrillard is right to wonder about this). Rather, it belongs to the consummation of “history” as we know it.

Therefore, it really does appear as though we are trapped with a hold on reality that is subjectively influenced. However, rather than rejecting such a hold on reality (which I believe is at least some sort of tangible hold — even if it is a small one — and not simply a picture or simulacrum of reality) we must walk the path between objectivity and subjectivity. I think that critical realism shows us the way here. Critical realism reminds us that both those who claim total objectivity and those who claim total subjectivity tend to crucify others.

However, there is nothing about critical realism that makes it any more convincing (or any more of a “sign” or “pure event”) than that which is offered to us by nihilism or critical anti-realism. Consequently, we really do seem to be in the situation that Lyotard has described for us: we all belong to our small tribes, we all ascribe to our “small narratives” and our own understandings of truth, value, and meaning (or the lack thereof), and there is no way for us to posit one of these approaches as the approach for all of us. The quest for a system that will provide us with universal assent and certainty has failed, and we have awakened to the realization that we all live in the absence of total certainty. I have addressed this situation several times before on my blog, so now I will only mention that such a crisis of the word (which is both a crisis of the meaning of the word, and a crisis of the communication of the word) inexorably draws us to the issue of embodiment and performativity (an issue that has been well addressed by the likes of von Balthasar, Lindbeck, and, more recently, Vanhoozer). Of course, performance does not become the new means of producing certainty (as if our lives can be the pure event that Jesus' life never was!) but it can, perhaps, tip the scales. After all, it is worth remembering the following words from Dorothy Day:

We had a mad friend once, a Jewish worker from the East Side… He sat at the table with us once and held up the piece of dark bread which he was eating. “It is the black bread of the poor. It is Russian Jewish bread. It is the flesh of Lenin. Lenin held bread up to the people and he said, 'This is my body, broken for you.' So they worship Lenin. He brought them bread.”

Those of us who pray daily for bread, and who break bread together in communities where no one should have too much or too little, would do well to think on this.

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